Even 3 extra draws couldn’t save a devastating NBA draft lottery for the Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

CHICAGO — It may be hard to believe, but I can attest firsthand — it wasn’t rigged.

The Detroit Pistons endured their worst possible outcome during Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery in Chicago, falling to the No. 5 overall pick despite finishing with the league’s worst record — their 17 wins were three fewer than the next worst team — and entering the night tied with two other teams for the best odds — 14% apiece — for the No. 1 overall pick.

They won’t be drafting Victor Wembanyama, a generational 7-foot-5 prospect. He will almost certainly end up with the San Antonio Spurs, who won the jackpot with their 14% odds. The Pistons also likely won’t end up with G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson or Alabama wing Brandon Miller, widely considered the next tier of prospects.

But it wasn’t rigged.

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I was one of 19 reporters invited to the drawing room, where the lottery machine is located and the magic actually happens. Tuesday night’s live broadcast, during which representatives from all 14 teams sit on stage and await the results, is all for show. The draft order was decided more than an hour before, and I watched the entire process.

Every year, the league brings reporters into the drawing room for transparency purposes. The group included several other local beat writers and national media memberst. Also in the room: a different cast of representatives for each team and various NBA personnel. Call it roughly 40 people, in total.

At 5:30 p.m., we were escorted from the media room at McCormick Place to the drawing room, a short five-minute walk. Following that — at 5:45 p.m. — we handed over our phones and other electronic devices. No one in the room — not even the cast of front office folks anxiously awaiting the drawing — were allowed to bring in any communication or recording devices.

We were provided pens, notepads and a sheet of paper featuring all the possible pingpong ball combinations — all 1,001 of them. And we were locked in the room until 7:30 p.m., following the conclusion of the live broadcast.

Here’s how the lottery works — 14 balls, numbered 1 through 14, are placed into a machine designed by Smart Play Company, a well-known state lottery machine manufacturer. All 14 teams are assigned a certain number of the four-ball combinations, corresponding to their odds. Since the Pistons, Spurs and Houston Rockets each had a 14% chance at the first overall pick, they each had 140 combinations.

The Pistons, owning the worst record, were the first team on the page. Their first combination? 1-2-3-4. It was followed by 1-2-3-5, 1-2-3-6, and 1-2-3-7. You get the gist. Their 140th and final combination was 1-4-7-9, after which the Rockets’ first combination was 1-4-7-10.There were 1,000 combinations assigned, with the 1,001st — 11-12-13-14 — resulting in a “pick again” scenario if it were drawn.

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At 6 p.m., NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell stepped to the podium and described the process for drawing the four top spots. (The remaining teams, once the top four were set, are slotted in by record and tiebreakers.) If a team’s designated combo came up after it had already won a pick, it would result in a redraw. A 20-second countdown preceded the first drawn ball, after which the remaining three were drawn in 10-second intervals.

Matt Doria, a representative from the NBA’s legal team, stood in front of the lottery machine to Spruell’s left. Next to Doria was Marc Dieli, a representative from accounting firm Ernst & Young, who would later deliver the lottery results to the stage at McCormick Place.

The Pistons were represented by the same duo who delivered the franchise’s first No. 1 pick in 51 years in 2021. On the broadcast stage was franchise great Ben Wallace. In the drawing room was Jon Phelps, Detroit’s assistant general manager of basketball strategy.

Everyone knows Wallace, but Phelps doesn’t have a front-facing role in the organization. He joined the Pistons in 2016 and was the general manager for their former G League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive. A 2012 graduate of Tulane Law School, Phelps previously lived in Detroit but has worked remotely in New Orleans since July — which Detroit’s front office happily signed off on so he can stay with his family.

Phelps wore the same lucky socks that brought Cade Cunningham to Detroit two years ago. They’re light blue, have dinosaurs on them and were a gift from his 6-year-old nephew.

“If I’m no longer here after this, you know what happened,” he joked after Detroit fell to the fifth pick.

The drawing began right after 6 p.m. One by one, Doria announced the number on each ball before placing it into the lottery machine. The balls began spinning inside, and 20 seconds passed before the first ball was pulled. The first combination was 14-5-8-2. The order of the balls doesn’t matter; it was one of the Spurs’ 140 combinations.

Then came the combos for pick No. 2 — 7-3-5-4 (Charlotte Hornets) — and No. 3 — 11-3-9-6 (Portland Trail Blazers). And then, apparently because whatever basketball (or random-number generator) gods were overseeing the process were really tired of seeing the Hornets and Spurs lose, things slowed down. The combo for pick No. 4 came up 13-14-1-11 — which belonged to the Spurs. Redraw. The next combo came up 3-4-9-7 — which belonged to the Hornets. The next combo was 2-12-7-3 — again a Spurs combo — drawing laughter from the room.

Finally on the seventh drawing of a combination, it came up 7-14-4-1 — which belonged to the Rockets.

Entering the night, Detroit essentially had a coin-flip chance of sticking in the top four: 52.1%, with a 47.9% chance of dropping to fifth. And that’s exactly what happened.

By 6:20 p.m., the lottery drawing had concluded. An hour and 10 minutes later, the broadcast finished.

The drawing room was business-like, but the broadcast properly played up the drama of the moment. Pick Nos. 6-14 played out as expected according to the odds. Then, the Pistons were surprisingly announced at No. 5, drawing a big reaction from the crowd. A commercial break immediately followed.

During his post-lottery conference call with reporters, Pistons general manager Troy Weaver expressed confidence in the result. Some believe this year’s lottery was a Wembanyama-or-Bust affair. Spurs CEO R.C. Buford’s jubilant reaction certainly added to that notion.

Weaver tossed water on the idea.

“If you feel that way, you’re not going to be successful,” Weaver said. “I have a philosophy. My grandfather said the man who expects nothing can’t be disappointed. I’m not disappointed. I wasn’t going in expecting the No. 1 pick. I don’t believe in luck and chance.”

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